10 Takeways From NFL Preseason Week 1: Bad Football, Great Stories, and Regular-Season Excitement

What did we learn from Week 1 of the 2023 NFL preseason? Damar Hamlin stole the show, but a 5'5" running back and a scrappy Canadian had some fun along the way.

Preseason football stinks. But to steal a thought from fellow football analyst Thor Nystrom, complaining about it is akin to complaining about an appetizer when you haven’t eaten all day, and dinner is on the way. It’s still “real” football. These young men are still competing to realize their dreams. And these are 10 takeaways from Week 1 of the 2023 NFL preseason.

NFL Preseason Week 1 Takeaways

The Deuce is loose. The play of the year may have happened in the preseason. We witnessed what is as close to a miracle as many of us will ever see. Oh, and referees still stink, so there are no miracles there.

Seeing Damar Hamlin on the Field Was Magical

Seeing Damar Hamlin embrace trainer Denny Kellington before the game was heart-warming. But seeing Hamlin play 22 defensive snaps was easily the best story of the preseason. Although he’s been cleared and practicing for some time now, getting to see him hitting at full speed on television was magical.

But that wasn’t all. Hamlin forced a turnover when he collided with Evan Hull on a 4th-and-1. After literally dying on the field on Jan. 2, the Bills safety admitted he had nerves, but he played with absolutely no hesitation.

Nathan Rourke’s Escape and TD Pass Was Insane

There may not be a more unexplainable outcome all year than Nathan Rourke’s touchdown pass to Qadree Ollison.

The QB dropped back and went to the default spin out to the left but was swallowed by two Cowboys defenders.

However, he somehow shrugged off the would-be sackers and began climbing the pocket in a backpedal, where he was contacted by another Cowboys defensive lineman to no avail.

After being hit relatively squarely by a fourth Cowboys defensive lineman, who this time was able to wrap up, things looked grim. But Rourke somehow stayed upright long enough with his eyes downfield to deliver a TD pass to the RB.

A 5’5″ Running Back Stole the Show

Anybody with a pulse on the Cowboys has seen the “smol” running back propaganda on social media. Deuce Vaughn, the son of Cowboys assistant director of college scouting Chris Vaughn, was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft out of Kanas State. The elusive back battled in the Big 12, but could he continue that at the NFL level?

It appears that he took a page out of Vegeta’s book from Dragon Ball Z Abridged. He is the hype. Vaughn finished with eight carries for 50 yards and a touchdown while also collecting a few ankles and being the focal point of one of the most incredibly framed photographs of all time.

Referees Need the Preseason Too

Even if we lived in a world where it was unnecessary for the players to have preseason games, this phenomenon would likely persist. Refereeing an NFL game is an imperfect art, but it’s been abundantly clear in Week 1 of the preseason that the refs absolutely need the reps. Awful spots, missed calls, and sloppy procedures ran rampant.

We’ll never erase the human error involved with refereeing, but the zebras need to dramatically improve before Sept. 8 if they want to stay out of the headlines when these games go in the W-L column.

Rookie QBs Look Like Rookie QBs

C.J. Stroud’s INT was ugly. Anthony Richardson’s may have been even uglier. And Bryce Young looked fine, but he got teed off on multiple times, and the Panthers found absolutely nothing in the intermediate or deep levels.

Stroud made the correct read, but he stared down Tank Dell, and the route distribution meant that Jalen Mills could poach the No. 1. With the No. 2 in the bunch running a vertically-stemmed route up the seam, Stroud needs to trust Dell and hold Mills in the middle a bit longer.

Richardson forced the issue on an RPO. The timing between himself and the receiver running the quick out in the curl/flat combo was off, and he must learn to throw that at the receiver’s feet and live to see another down.

The Return Game Ain’t Dead Yet

Kickoff returns are becoming more and more legislated out of the game. However, the excitement of the punt return remains high. Dee Alford and Derius Davis both returned punts for touchdowns in Week 1 of the NFL preseason.

There were six kickoff return touchdowns a season ago, and only three punts returned for house calls. But it appears teams are learning to disregard size a bit in favor of finding the shiftiest dudes they can find. Seeing two returns in one preseason week could be a sign of things to come.

The Bears Offense Finally Has Answers

Nothing we saw against the Tennessee Titans’ second defensive unit tells us anything about what we’ll see from Justin Fields — independent of his situation — in 2022. The DJ Moore throw was not good, and those off-target screen passes limit YAC more often than not.

But seeing Moore out there was a breath of fresh air for anyone who has been a steady proponent of the Bears doing everything in their power with the bathtubs full of salary cap space they had this offseason to add to the offense.

Saints Put the NFC South on Notice

Yes, it is only the preseason, and yes, the Chiefs defense is always bad early and were missing their best player. But the New Orleans Saints offense absolutely bullied the Chiefs, particularly up front. Trevor Penning looked back in his Northern Iowa form, tossing Kansas City defenders to the turf.

Derek Carr (4) passes to tight end Juwan Johnson (83) against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at the Caesars Superdome.

Derek Carr looked comfortable in the offense and as a playmaker when things broke down. Although he’ll need to show he’s willing to continue his aggressiveness in the regular season, it was nice to see him trusting the weapons at his disposal to make plays. And they were one of the few units that actually faced an opposing group of starters.

Is … Is Aaron Rodgers Actually Mentoring Zach Wilson?

After paying homage to Aaron Rodgers on his play-action touchdown pass, it’s safe to wonder whether the four-time league MVP is legitimately mentoring the younger Jets QB. It appears the answer is a resounding “YES!”

“He’s been in my head pocket learning, asking a ton of questions in the locker room and in the media room after hours,” Rodgers said of Wilson. “And I love that because I feel like that’s a big part of my role here. Not just play at a super high level for this team and help us win, but to make sure that he’s ready for when his time comes, and I really enjoy that opportunity.”

It will be fascinating to see whether Wilson continues showing a heavy lean toward conservatism during the rest of his preseason action. His playmaking ability got him drafted where he was, but his poor process, mechanical breakdowns, and overaggression ended up doing more harm than good.

Rodgers, at his very best, is able to channel his inner Tiger Woods. Many believe that they’re aggressive because of some of their physical gifts. But while both have the ability to and often show that one-of-one ability, they often lean conservative and mistake-free.

If Wilson can find that balance, he could resurrect his career in New York.

The Difference Between Starting Units and Backups Is Startling

On an individual level, the drop-off at most positions on the field isn’t so much that losing a starter or two cripples a team’s ability to score points or defend. But when 11 starters are facing two starters and nine reserves, it’s crystal clear who is who.

The difference is exacerbated by those depth pieces pressing as hard as possible to make the team. It’s a counterintuitive venture because it often leads to the sloppy play we’re inundated with during the bulk of the preseason.

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